THE state government is asking Hunter residents to embrace its bold proposal for a new-look Newcastle despite admissions much of the detail is still to be worked out.
Confirming yesterday that the plan was to cut the heavy rail line west of Stewart Avenue and use buses to shuttle people to the eastern precincts of the CBD, Planning Minister Brad Hazzard said the O’Farrell government was absolutely committed to funding the project.
He said the plan would help propel the ailing Newcastle CBD to a new era of long-term prosperity.
The government would like to see a Wickham interchange built within three years, with high-rise development on the blocks around the interchange creating a new city centre in Newcastle west.
But any hopes that light rail would be included were dashed, in the short-term at least. Mr Hazzard said that option was at least 10 to 20 years away.
Flanked by Newcastle lord mayor Jeff McCloy and Liberal state MPs Tim Owen and Craig Baumann, Mr Hazzard outlined the strategy that would require at least $120 million of state government money and $100 million from Canberra.
Mr Owen said the government was also looking for private-sector investment in the terminus project, which would probably take in part of the Store building.
The Newcastle MP was enthusiastic in his optimism for the project.
‘‘I think we all agree that we have the potential to be one of the most beautiful harbour cities in the world, and this will drive that outcome,’’ he said.
‘‘We are rebuilding this city not just for our generation but for future generations, our sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters.’’
The proposal, revealed exclusively in yesterday’s Newcastle Herald, is the latest in a string of proposals to cut the line.
Mr Hazzard said the city of Newcastle was further behind than it needed to be because Labor had ‘‘dithered’’ for 16 years.
‘‘Obviously, if it was an easy decision it would have been made by the former Labor government,’’ Mr Hazzard said. ‘‘It is not an easy decision, but it is a decision that has been extremely well considered.’’
The government is displaying a 200-page Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy for public comment until March 13.
The renewal strategy, together with a series of related reports also on display, lean more towards urban planning than public transport, and Mr Hazzard said much of the fine print of the proposal was yet to be worked out.
Reaction to the proposal has ranged from enthusiastic endorsement to outright condemnation.
Business groups applauded the announcement, with the Urban Development Institute of Australia describing the rail line as the single biggest barrier to CBD renewal.
Property developer GPT, which is working with the state government’s Landcom to revive its stalled development project in the Hunter Street mall, said the announcement was ‘‘a positive way forward’’ but it needed time to assess the impact on its proposal.
Other business groups also said they needed to see more detail from the government.
Opposition from Labor, the Greens and various transport and community groups was immediate and loud.
Greens MP David Shoebridge summed up the concerns of many when he said ‘‘nobody wants to catch a train almost to Newcastle’’.
Mr Shoebridge said the renewal strategy ‘‘reads like a shopping list for developers’’ and put their needs ahead of residents. He and others feared the $120 million would not be enough for the job.
Mr Hazzard said he was counting on a Coalition win in next year’s federal election to help with the proposed $100 million contribution from Canberra, but Mr Shoebridge said even this extra funding left the government well short of the $500 million price tag that experts had put on the job two years ago.
Federal Labor may not support the project, with Newcastle MP Sharon Grierson saying it would be a ‘‘waste of money’’ for Canberra to fund the replacement of trains with buses.
Mr Hazzard urged doubters to have faith in the government’s ability to make the proposal work, and he brushed off questions about the implications for public transport by saying the detail would be made available in the coming months.
Cr McCloy said history would record the ‘‘marvellous’’ decision.
Former minister laments lost opportunities past
CUTTING the Newcastle rail line is unfinished business for former Labor Transport Minister Michael Costa.
Mr Costa, who announced the line would be cut in 2003 before his decision was overturned in 2006, said he wished the state government well for the project.
‘‘I hope they [the government] have more intestinal fortitude than the government that I was part of,’’ he said yesterday.
Mr Costa, who was also Minister for the Hunter, now works in King Street, Newcastle, as an executive director of the engineering consultancy BG&E.
He said the past nine years represented lost opportunity for the city centre.
‘‘There is no question when you look at this city that in nine years we could have had a much more vibrant environment and a much better public transport system because the issue here is not just about removing the rail line, it’s about having a new public transport system that meets the new urban landscape that Newcastle is,’’ he said.